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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Retro Review: The Pelican Brief (1993)

The Pelican Brief
Cast: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, John Heard, Stanley Tucci, John Lithgow, Cynthia Nixon 
Genre: Legal Political Thriller 
Worldwide Box Office Gross: over $195 million

Plot: A law student whose legal brief about the assassination of two Supreme Court justices causes her to be targeted by killers. She realises just how accurate her accusations have been when her lover and mentor is murdered. Forced to go on the run in New Orleans, she is aided by a journalist who helps her unravel a conspiracy involving senior government figures 

'A Top Notch Edge-Of- Your- Seat Political Thriller'

The Pelican Brief is based on the 1992 John Grisham novel of the same name, in which a law student, Darby Shaw played by Julia Roberts, discovers a plot to assassinate U.S supreme court justices so that the two less biased justices can be appointed in their place. She puts together a theory, titled ''The Pelican Brief'', but then her boyfriend college professor is killed in a car bombing, with his friend who later falls victim, and due to that theory, she finds herself in danger and on the run. By enlisting the help of a journalist, Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), both Grantham and Shaw must figure out whether or not they can confirm the theory of the brief, before they become the government operatives next targets, as they try to put a stop to Darby ''spilling the beans'', as we'd say. The film's title is in reference to the paper that Darby pens that theorises a murder conspiracy involving the supreme court justices. 

This is one of Julia Roberts's finest acting roles; alongside Denzel Washington, both stars turn in excellent and efficient and somewhat low-key performances, without hogging too much of the limelight. If there is one thing I didn't care for it was that storyline with Darby and her older professor boyfriend. Still, the intricacy of the script is taxing as it is well developed and the film demonstrates the sheer depth of Julia's acting ability, which hit its peak towards the early 2000s and hasn't really been replicated since Erin Brockovich in 2000 & to a lesser extent, Mona Lisa Smile, 3 years after.

The film also features an early appearance of Cynthia Nixon, who went on to star in Sex and the City, as Darby's best friend, Alice. 

Like all the other John Grisham Novels, The Pelican Brief is an example of how to do a big screen adaptation of a novel with justice and it is a '90s political conspiracy film that harkens back to political thrillers of the 1970s, such as Pakula's other notable hit, All The President's Men with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in its feel and approach - yet this one is more thrilling in places, and toes in line, somewhat, with 1991's JFK

The plot, just like with All The President's Men, is complex enough to get your head around and on paper, it is a conventional crime thriller of sorts which also reminds me of 1976's Marathon Man, & the movie is very suspenseful and solid with some good and intriguing plot twists that spring out of nowhere. Technically, The Pelican Brief centres on conspiracy where a hypothesis suggests two or more persons have conspired to cover up an event or situation, with a deliberate action on their part. It's one of those films with complicated plots, but when you watch the film unravel and all these things happen, it becomes highly engrossing, thanks to the intrigue, the chasing on foot and the plot twists. So, therefore, you have to pay attention all the time. 

Speaking of the foot chases and scenes where Gray and Darby try to evade their captors, they make the film more exciting and thrilling to watch. They were well shot and directed. 

In addition, Denzel Washington is excellent as the reporter, Gray Grantham aiding Darby as he and Roberts put on a good front and show they are and were a great fit for their characters and make for a good team, as is John Lithgow as Gray's editor of the Washington Herald. The supporting cast, along with the lead stars make do with a sharp, compelling and complex script, and in return, their engaging performances help manoeuvre the film and it all comes to a rewarding satisfaction. It's great to see both the main leads Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington making their mark, at a time where their careers were about to soar right through to the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Insofar as to what I've read, in the original novel, both Gray and Darby later get into a relationship with each other. & yet here, the movie doesn't go down that road with them - which is fine by me. It lends more credibility to The Pelican Brief and is the type of film that did not need sex scenes to sell a movie. 

The screenplay is so absorbing, tense - yet taxing and mind-twisting, as it tests the Darby character and the audience's intelligence in figuring out what is the exact motive behind these killings and the significance of the political beliefs that might have played a part in them. The film takes liberties with the original source material and few alterations were made, yet those changes do not take away from what is an impressive movie. & I really enjoyed the last 5-10 mins and the ending was good. This is a far better film than Conspiracy Theory of 1997 starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson. 

Pakula's direction elevates it from a political thriller to a mystery and crime story that is well-paced and as compelling, as it is highly suspenseful. 


Pros +

- Exceptional performances by Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington help elevate the film

- Intense and suspenseful in places, really good edge-of-your-seat moments

- Screenplay is taxing - yet absorbing 

- Compelling direction by Alan Pakula 

Cons -

- Didn't really care about the Darby and her professor boyfriend relationship 

Final Verdict:

The Pelican Brief is yet another in the long line of fantastic movies that Hollywood doesn't make anymore, nor do they make them like they used to. With this film and Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts stepped up to the plate as a rising Hollywood actress turned superstar. 

The story makes little sense and is very taxing & the film itself can be very heavy, but Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington's charisma make The Pelican Brief easy viewing and it helps manoeuvre this film as a suspenseful, nail-biting and entertaining effort and an above decent adaptation. This is definitely one for John Grisham fans and fans of political thrillers.


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